Families promote suicide prevention

In fall 2011, when Heather Carruthers found out that her cousin’s girlfriend had left him, she worried – debating for hours whether to go visit, to assure him that, at 23, he had his whole life in front of him.

She didn’t go.

Then she got a call at 5 a.m. – “the phone call you never want to receive” – that he’d killed himself.

Later, a grief counselor told her she had survivor’s guilt, which helped her realize eventually that she had a choice to make: live with regret she hadn’t gone over that evening or help keep other families from the same kind of regret.

She chose the latter.

Now, she’s a leader in two suicide prevention initiatives that will be unfolding this fall.

One is the second annual “Out of the Darkness” pledge walk to raise funds for suicide prevention – a local event within a national program.

The other is the Suicide Prevention Orientation Program – STOP – a proposed locally based suicide video chat hot line for veterans that Carruthers’ assistant Megan Paule believes can become national in scope.

Carruthers and Paule plan to hold the Out of the Darkness walk from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 21.

They hope to have the holine operating by October. Last year’s Out of the Darkness walk raised $12,000, which went to the Blair County Suicide Task Force and for suicide prevention programs in schools and funeral expenses and other costs for families, Paule said.

There’s a page on the Out of the Darkness website devoted to the Blair County walk.

The stated goal is $10,000, although the group is just getting started with this year’s fundraising.

The STOP hot line program will feature a smartphone app to enable vets in distress to click an icon to be connected – possibly through an operator – to a certified psychologist or a vet from the same branch of the military and a similar service history, so the caller feels comfortable.

“It’s hard for them to talk with regular civilians,” Paule said.

The program would seek to make the connections quickly and surely.

Paule has talked with vets who have used a national vets’ crisis hot line, who said that too often they get a recording advising the caller to call 911 if it’s an emergency, she said.

“When they call, it’s important to talk to someone right away, if they’re thinking of committing suicide,” she said.

Carruthers was an only child, and grew regard for her cousin, Thomas Gvozd of Altoona, as a little brother, when they got older.

Gvozd had a rough childhood and moved around a lot, she said.

But he graduated with honors from high school, became a boxer and served in the military.

He also fathered a baby with his girlfriend and had problems with depression.

“I reached out and told him that if he needed anything, I would be there,” she said.

When his girlfriend left him, Carruthers “wrestled the entire night whether to go over,” she said. “But I thought, ‘He’s a young kid,’ and I left it alone.”

Then the call came.

She found out later during grief counseling that she had been “very ignorant of suicide.”

There had been signs, but no one had recognized them.

Gvozd had been angry and disconnected and had lost interest in things he enjoyed, Carruthers said.

“He was battling his own demons,” she said. If she knew then what she knows now, she might have helped prevent what happened, she said.

Paule endured the suicide of her stepfather when she was 15.

Matthew Murtiff had been with Paule’s mom for 12 years and was like a father to her.

He killed himself in their house in 2005.

Paule was out back with Murtiff and her brother, who was talking to Murtiff, when Murtiff said, “I’ll be right back. I want to go grab something from the basement.”

They heard the shot.

Her mother and brother went down.

Then Paule heard her mother screaming.

The police showed up.

Paule, who felt she had to see for herself, went down and broke through the officers.

The police questioned them with obvious suspicion at first, desisting only after the coroner ruled it was self-inflicted.

Because it would have been so expensive to hire a clean-up firm, Paule, her brother and a few cousins sanitized the scene the next day, hosing and bleaching.

They were silent as they worked.

She went to psychiatrists afterwards, discussing “a lot of what-ifs.”

Her mother never sought help, and moved out of the house.

Her brother didn’t get the help he needed, either, and never has visited Murtiff’s grave.

Paule still lives there and has grown comfortable talking about it.

She feels she has been strong, “holding it together” for the rest of the family.

As with Carruthers’ cousin, there had been signs, recognizable in retrospect.

Murtiff had become standoffish, and the week before, had started to get his finances in order – though secretly – and to clean up, particularly his basement workbench, which had been a mess.

He used a long gun, which meant he had to rig it, which indicated he’d been planning the suicide, Paule said.

Still, he had seemed happy to them.

He had been in combat in the Navy during the Persian Gulf War and might have suffered a traumatic brain injury there, Paule thinks.

Working on the prevention programs with Carruthers has helped her feel less alone.

She’s met many people in the area who’ve gone through similar distress.

Sharing experiences is helpful, she said.

And last year’s Out of the Darkness turnout “gave me pure joy,” she said.